Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shaw, Thomas (1694-1751)

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SHAW, THOMAS (1694–1751), African traveller, the son of Gabriel Shaw, a shearman dyer of Kendal, Westmoreland, was born on 4 June and baptised at Kendal on 18 June 1694. He was educated at Kendal grammar school, where he gained an exhibition, and matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford, on 5 Dec. 1711, aged seventeen, graduating B.A. in 1716 and M.A. on 16 Jan. 1720. Later in 1720 he went out as chaplain to the English factory at Algiers. During his thirteen years' residence there he made a series of expeditions to Egypt, the Sinaitic peninsula and Cyprus (1721), Jerusalem, the Jordan, and Mount Carmel (1722), Tunis, and the ruins of Carthage (1727), in addition to various excursions ‘in the interior of Barbary,’ or in other words in Algeria, Tripoli, and Morocco. In Barbary he relates that travelling was comparatively safe, but in the Holy Land the ‘wild Arabs’ were very numerous, and his caravan was insufficiently protected by four companies of Turkish infantry and four hundred ‘spahees,’ while his personal danger was enhanced by his practice of loitering to inspect curiosities. Having married Joanna, widow of Edward Holden, at one time consul in Algiers, who had given him every assistance in his travels in Africa, Shaw returned to England in 1733. He had in his absence been elected a fellow of Queen's College (1727). He proceeded B.D. and D.D. in the year after his return, and was presented to the vicarage of Godshill in the Isle of Wight. He was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society (13 June 1734), having contributed to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of 1729 ‘A Geographical Description of the Kingdom of Tunis.’ Four years later appeared his ‘Travels or Observations relating to several parts of Barbary and the Levant,’ Oxford, 1738, fol., a noble example of typography, illustrated by maps and plates, catalogues of animals, plants, fossils, coins and inscriptions, and a copious index. It was dedicated to George II, with a reference to the generous patronage of Queen Caroline. A plate of coins was dedicated to Dr. Richard Mead [q. v.] Dibdin calls the work ‘a safe inmate’ of a well-chosen collection. ‘Fly, fly,’ he says, ‘to secure it’ (Libr. Comp. 1824, ii. 48); it was especially esteemed on account of its illustrations of natural history, of classic authors, and of the scriptures. Shaw was no political observer, but a scholar, antiquary, and natural historian. He probably owed some botanical instruction to John Wilson (d. 1751) [q. v.] No less than 640 species of plants are described in his book. He also gives interesting descriptions of many mammals, of insects (especially of the locust swarms), and even of fishes. For his time his geological views are enlightened, while his conjectures on the subject of the pyramids have been fully confirmed by Belzoni and other investigators. Gibbon, in the ‘Decline and Fall’ (chap. xxiv.), honourably excepts him from the crowd of ‘blind’ travellers; his scrupulous fidelity was vindicated by James Bruce and by later African explorers (cf. Kitto, Palestine, pref. and Sumner, White Slavery in the Barbary States). His accuracy was, however, impugned by Richard Pococke [q. v.] in his ‘Description of the East’ (vol. ii. 1745), and Shaw issued in 1746 ‘A Supplement … wherein some objections lately made are fully considered and answered,’ and, in the following year, ‘A further Vindication in a Letter to R. Clayton, bishop of Clogher.’ Both these supplements were incorporated in the second and most valued edition, London, 1757, 4to, and in the third edition, Edinburgh, 1808, 2 vols. 8vo (cf. Lowndes, Bibl. Man. ed. Bohn). The work was translated into German, Dutch (Amsterdam, 1780, 4to), and French (The Hague, 1743, 4to; reissued, with additions, Paris, 1830, 8vo).

On the death of Dr. Henry Felton, Shaw became, on 18 Aug. 1740, principal of Edmund Hall. He ‘raised the hall from a ruinous condition by his munificence,’ and was termed its ‘instaurator.’ Next year (7 Nov.) Shaw was appointed regius professor of Greek, in succession to Dr. John Fanshaw, and in 1742 he was presented by his college to the vicarage of Bramley in Hampshire. He died on 15 Aug. 1751, and was buried in Bramley church, where a monument was erected to his memory with a long Latin inscription by his friend, Dr. Joseph Browne, fellow (and afterwards provost) of Queen's College. A commemorative tablet was erected in the English church at Algiers; and a botanical species received the name Shawia in his honour. He left to the university several natural curiosities, the manuscript of his travels with corrections, and some antique coins and busts, three of which were engraved in the ‘Marmora Oxoniensia.’ In politics he was an almost bigoted Hanoverian (cf. Wordsworth, Social Life in the English Universities, p. 615). A portrait of Shaw ‘from an original etching taken from life, in the possession of Sir William Musgrave, bart.,’ is prefixed to the memoir in the ‘European Magazine’ (1791, i. 83); there are also portraits in oils in the common-room gallery at Queen's and at Edmund Hall. These represent ‘a stout and fierce, but not ill-tempered, looking man’ (note from Provost Magrath). His countenance is described as ‘grotesque, but marked most strongly with jocularity and good humour.’

[Gent. Mag. 1751, p. 381; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, ii. 288 (with epitaph); Nicholson's Annals of Kendal, 1861, p. 346; W. W.'s Westmoreland Worthies, No. xxxvii.; Works of the Learned, iv. 1, 79; Thomson's Hist. of Royal Society, App. p. xxxix; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. x. 28, 294; Macray's Annals of the Bodleian, 1890, p. 224; North American Rev. xxii. 409; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Georgian Era, iii. 13; English Cyclopædia; Allibone's Dict. of English Lit.; Stevenson's Cat. of Voyages and Travels, No. 597; Richarderie's Bibl. Univ. des Voyages, iv. 18–37 (giving an excellent summary of Shaw's results); Shaw's Travels are also published in Pinkerton's Voyages and Travels, vol. xv., and portions of them as an appendix to Maundrell's Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem (1750), in ‘A Compendium of Modern Travels,’ 1757, vol. i., in Moore's Collection of Voyages (1785), and in The World Displayed, 1774, vols. xi. xvii. and xviii.]

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